Quite an Adventure…
As of this month I have been in full time Christian ministry for 30 years. Now I know that all followers of Jesus are in full time Christian ministry, but I have had the privilege of being employed by the Church for three decades. I wanted to use this terms blog to reflect on that journey. It feels a little self indulgent, but as a famous Greek chap said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
I went to Mattersey Hall Theological College in 1987 having just had my 19th birthday. I’d become a a Christian 4 years earlier at a wonderful Pentecostal chapel in Maesteg, South Wales. It was called Siloam and the joyful congregation had a reasonable collection of tambourines with ribbons! A year later a man prayed for me when I was in a meeting in Siloam and told me that God would take away my spirit of a doubting Thomas and place within me a spirit of adventure. Until that time I was set on becoming a computer programmer. I had rarely left my little Welsh valley. But it has been quite an adventure.
A few years later that congregation had grown so quickly that they purchased and began to convert a local cinema. We called it New Life Christian Centre (today it has been renamed Bethel Community Church). It was there I went after college and began my first job as a youth pastor. The youth group grew from a handful to 50 in a relatively short period of time, and the new I set up for 10-14s quickly past 100 young people. I’ve never struggled to gather a crowd. I learnt a lot there, but the experience was to be short lived. The leadership had changed since the early days of sustained growth and no matter how many young people you gather, they are never going to pay the bills, 15months after arriving, it was time to move on.
In January 1992 I moved to the Milton Keynes Christian Centre. The senior minister had pioneered the church and built it to a congregation of 500, I learnt so much from him, although admittedly I had to unlearn some of it! There was a large employed staff team and it was such an exciting place to minister. This was the place I really learnt my craft. I worked with children and young people and later in community engagement. I became part of several church planting teams, I preached and led services and established a children’s outreach project called “Frantic” that would see hundreds of children every Saturday morning. We would soon establish the largest child care provision on the back of this, meeting spiritual and social needs throughout this growing new town. I would also take over 2,000 primary school assemblies in my time there.
I would stay part of the leadership team until 2002, but the children’s club would run for more than a decade after I left and the church itself would soon see over 1,000 people in weekly attendance. My last five years in Christian Centre were combined with working nationally as part of the Assemblies of God National Children’s Team, my first experience of ministering on a national stage, running training events, children’s meetings, training days. That would grow a little further in 2002 when I was invited to speak to a conference in Australia. It was in this period that I published my first book, Fusion. And was appointed as a Justice of the Peace.
When I left Milton Keynes at the end of 2001 I really did feel like Jacob leaving Laban (Genesis 29). I had met my wife Rhian in Milton Keynes and all three of our children were born in the hospital there. I had arrived with close to nothing – literally a small bag of clothes (which Rhian would soon suggest were far from fashionable) and a few books – and I left with a wife, three very young children, a growing reputation for mission and evangelism, especially with children and families, a published book and two more close to publication, and experience of ministering on a national and international platform.
I had been a Pentecostal minister for quite some time, but we were leaving in 2001 because God was calling us to the Anglican church. The adventure had taken an unusual twist.
I began working at St Mary’s Bletchley at the end of 2002 as an associate minister. I had no experience of being an Anglican, had rarely been to an Anglican church, but the Bishop smiled on the appointment and the local vicar took a risk – I like to think it paid off and we were a blessing. We thoroughly enjoyed our time at St Mary’s. We took the move to Anglicanism like fish to water – well, certainly the St Mary’s form of charismatic evangelical Anglican. One of my sons was particularly delighted because we were now worshipping in a castle! Certainly the architecture was very different to the church buildings we were used to. I preached and led services, established a children’s club called “Dream Factory” in the building we purchased for a new church plant that soon began to attract unchurched families and worked with local schools and published more books.
We remember our time at St Mary’s fondly, but shorter lived than expected. In the autumn of 2004, having successfully negotiated a Church of England selection conference, we were going to Nottingham for me to train to be a vicar. But the Anglicans are nothing if not pragmatic, so it was decided that because of my previous experience, I would spend the time in Nottingham working with the university on a PhD in child evangelism and church growth. It was also at this time that I became Head of Children & Family Ministry for New Wine. Overseeing their summer conference, attended by 24,000 people over two weeks every summer, also running training days and conferences for children and family workers. I had the joy of heading up this ministry for 12 years and then adding another two years as I headed up a project called “Where Adventure Begins” for New Wine, in conjunction with Riding Lights Theatre company, focusing on enabling Christians families communicate faith. We still have so many good friends who are part of this exciting movement.
In 2007 I became a curate to the most idyllic village church in a place called Stoke Poges. Near the church car park is a wonderful monument that holds the words of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” This curacy was designed to give me time to complete my PhD, but it also meant I could become more familiar with the more traditional elements of the Anglican church with weekly choral evensong and robed choirs. St Giles church was positioned just outside the village and I still remember the feel of walking out of the church in the early hours of Christmas Day having just finished Midnight Communion and breathing in the frosty air and staring up at the starlit sky. It really was magical. We were there just over three years, published more books including publishing the PhD and doing a national book tour with it with Scripture Union and Urban Saints and then spoke several more times in New Zealand and Australia, returned to Albania and added the USA to places I had spoken. During this period I had continued to publish, but had also began lecturing in various theological colleges both nationally and internationally. It was something I was enjoying very much. The opportunity to shape the next generation of leaders was really exciting.
In 2010 we moved to Warfield in Berkshire where I became Senior Minister of St Michael’s Warfield. This was a growing church with a history of church planting and we were excited about becoming part of that ministry. We would see consistent growth in our time there, the addition of new youth and children’s ministries and more church plants. Early on in the process we also took on the reordering of this 1,000 year old church. The renovation cost £500,000 and involved some very interesting debates with the Victorian Society and English Heritage, but the work got done and we were pleased to see it debt free before we left. We were also able to negotiate with the local council and see a new church school built to serve the community. By 2016 we had a thriving local church, six church plants, a range of exciting initiatives for all ages and had added 12 new staff members. We were on target to see attendance pass 1,000 people by 2020. It was already one of the largest churches in the Oxford Diocese.
But working with this church had been costly. I had closed the things that needing closing and encouraged some people to move on because they were no longer happy with the direction the church was taking. The level of conflict was high. Those opposed were becoming increasingly vocal (and organised). The former Bishop of Oxford has retired and there would be no replacement for several years, so there was no external support. So the day after Ash Wednesday 2016 I went to see the area bishop, I was clearly exhausted and making bad decisions, it didn’t take him long to prescribe a six month leave of absence. He wrote to the Church Council that day to tell them their vicar was suffering from extreme burnout and was to be left alone for the next six months.
I was broken, internal reserves were completely depleted. I had been running at quite a pace for decades and had hit the wall. I had lived as if I was indestructible, and was surprised to discover I wasn’t. But I have become convinced that we learn more in our times of brokenness than any other time. I had moved too quickly, I am a natural visionary, but was moving from project to project faster than the congregations could keep up. And I had added new staff members faster than was sensible and certainly a small minority were not proving to be a blessing. This was painful, but nonetheless important learning.
I had every intention of returning to the church after the six months but was also determined to use the six months well. Time for retreats, spiritual direction, spending time and being supported by friends, time to read, to think and reflect on why I had worked myself to exhaustion. Some ministers respond to brokenness by becoming harder, developing a thicker skin, I was determined to do the opposite, I did my best to build in the important values of accountability and deliberate intentional vulnerability. I also took on conferences in New Zealand and Australia because speaking in sunny countries was part of recovery! And to feed my need for intellectual stimulation I took the opportunity to become the religious consultant for several large publishers producing a new range of Religious Education curriculum for GCSE and A’ Level curriculum books, which I continue to do for their ongoing publications.
Even up until the last month of the leave of absence I had every intention of returning and agreed with the area bishop a return date, but in that last month, further conversations with the area bishop made it clear that he didn’t know how to (or possibly didn’t want to) provide the extra support this would need – this was a large church and I could no longer do this without stronger oversight. He had been a bishop in a different continent and wasn’t adjusting well to England and unknown to me he was about to announce his retirement. The area archdeacon had risen through the ranks quickly, but had no experience of churches of more than 50 people, and we were 800. So I took a step back and prayed further and had to honestly conclude that this would not work and it was time to consider whether there were other options. No clear direction came, other than the growing conviction that it was time to step down. It was difficult. We had so many good friends in that Church and I felt loyalties to so many. But I felt it was time, so I resigned, effective as of January 1st 2017. Sadly, throughout that autumn the majority of the employed staff team would also step down, but as one of my last acts, I was at least able to help them move in to some exciting posts in other churches.
I had negotiated that our family would stay in the Vicarage for six more months to enable me to start the process of praying about what next. When making big decisions I go on retreat to the Northumbria Community (I also go there when I’m not making big decisions!) The message at the retreat in January 2017 was clear and came from multiple people, “What do you want to do? God will give you the desire of your heart?” The problem was I didn’t know what I wanted to do next! It became a process of elimination. I could focus on the writing, but I didn’t want to be distant from coal face ministry, I could pursue senior positions in the diocese (or other dioceses), but I had lost some confidence in the diocesan senior team, so didn’t feel it was the right time for that move. Or I could build on my role as a theological educator and walk down that path for a season, however, I wasn’t sure I could adapt to working in a traditional theological college. There were also invites arriving from the other side of the world, so I was exploring a move to New Zealand and had a trip booked and appointments arranged with New Zealand bishops.
And then in early 2017 I saw an advert for a post in Wales. Going full circle. It was an unusual post in that it was joining the training arm of a denomination (Church in Wales) rather than a specific theological college. And while it had a base in Cardiff it conducted training across all of Wales. It seemed perfect. So I submitted an application. But I wasn’t sure, so had prayed that if the post was right for me, then I needed to hear before I flew to New Zealand in the April of that year. If I hadn’t been offered it at that point then I was going to explore the Southern Hemisphere options. God’s timing has always intrigued me – and in retrospect often humorous (in retrospect, rarely at the time!). The phone call came to say that the job was mine as I sat in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport!
The work was instantly rewarding and clearly valuable, but personally it was a difficult first year. My two eldest children were in university but my wife and youngest son remained in Berkshire so my son could finish his final year of GCSEs, God had provided the finances we needed to do this and it would have been wrong to ask him to move at that point, but it was hard to be separated from them. But the year went quickly enough and my son settled into a Cardiff secondary school for sixth form really well. We were very proud of him. Even more so when he achieved such fabulous A’Level results!
So I became part of St Padarn’s Institute (the training arm of the Church in Wales) in Spring 2017 and later took the position of Dean for Discipleship, looking after curates and other Newly Licensed Ministers, teaching on Missional Church, holding responsibility for national youth, children & family ministry development (I developed a Masters in children, young people and families as part of that – which has grown to be the largest Postgraduate course in children & families in the UK), supervising PhDs and working at resourcing and developing discipleship, and all of these activities across all of Wales and beyond. It was also a privilege to be appointed as the Welsh representative to the Anglican Communion Discipleship group. An exciting post and it really was God giving me the desire of my heart.
I have had the joy of ministering in Albania, America, Australia, Finland, Hungary and New Zealand on multiple occasions, have published 10 books and dozens of articles, ministered in so many exciting churches, seen many people step into their God given calling, established some exciting initiatives. We are now settled in Cardiff. Rhian works for the Welsh Audit Office. Our eldest, Nia, is a school teacher in Coventry, our eldest son, Owen, is doing his Masters in Politics and Public Administration in York and our youngest, Elliot, has just started at Winchester University where he is studying Media and Communication. They are all followers of Jesus.
It has been quite an adventure.
But by the grace of God I have 20 more years of full time Christian ministry left before I have to do this on a voluntary basis(!), so there is still time for a few more adventures yet!